Whether one is an athlete, dealmaker, politician, criminal, or peacekeeper, something needs to be said about epic clashes that we experience amid our climb to the top. In previous eras, intimidation was very important, but perhaps not as important as actual strength. You could intimidate the living daylights out of someone, but if you were beheaded in combat, how big of a man were you in the first place? Of course, if intimidation got you out of the war despite fighting a battle or two, then who knows, maybe you were smart after all.

Only the strong survive

Forget Braveheart and Gladiator , just think of Microsoft versus AOL circa the late 1990s, just before the browser war was about to be unleashed by William III of Redmond (Bill Gates from then on) or Stephen of Dulles (Steve Case thereafter). You may recall that Gates told Case that he could either buy AOL or he would crush them. He also told Netscape that he would annihilate them by developing his own browser.

Steve Case, then an up-and-coming player in high-tech circles, could not help but feel a bit worried, right? After all, the man uttering the threat, Bill Gates, was the mighty Goliath from Washington that had created the most valuable company in the world in less than a quarter of a century, amassing a fortune of gargantuan proportions in the meantime.

Was it a threat? Intimidation? Actually, it was a prophecy. A couple of years later, Bill bundled a browser and the rest, as they say, is history.

Only the good die young

Since then, Microsoft launched Internet Explorer, put Netscape out of that business; Netscape sold to, surprise, AOL. AOL acquired Time Warner and is now up there, in terms of power and reach, combining technology with content. Microsoft has since weathered the tech maelstrom better than Oracle, Sun and company. It recently added that it would never pursue a content play, as this would probably hurt it in the long-term.

Microsoft has since thrown a javelin in AOL’s prized ISP market. You thought the browser war got bloody? That was Braveheart -level bloodletting, but if this ISP battle gets half as heated as it could, expect a bloodbath in cyberspace that would make Braveheart seem like a stroll in the park.

Survival of the fittest

Was Case intimidated by Gates on that fateful day? Well, had he been intimidated, some would argue that he would have sold. Right? Wrong. Why would he sell (and conceivably remain a lieutenant to Gates) and work under someone who intimidates him? So does this mean that Gates intimidated him? Maybe, who would not be after all? But what makes Steve Case an underrated manager is that he was probably challenged more than anything else, challenged to beat Gates.

Case was, after all, a hotshot executive at both Pizza Hut and Pepsi; a marketing guy that had the idea for AOL and is now running the ultimate media firm around. But what is more interesting is that while Gates has always seemed like a techie, but really been a shrewd marketer, Case seems very driven and has managed at least one impressive feat: being Chairman of AOL Time Warner while the Time Warner boss took on the CEO title of the merged company. Yes, AOL bought Time Warner. Yes, technology would be crucial. But Levin could have retired, so if he took on the CEO job, then this shows that Case is one smooth and savvy fellow.

What does this say about the art of intimidation?

My way or the highway

Yes, it is important to be a man of conviction and get your way. But if you do so for the sake of saying you got your way when you are wrong, you aren’t doing anyone any favors.

Moreover, if you need to stoop to the level of swine to get what you want, you are better off not getting your way. One must be ethical, fair and respectful. In this situation, the intimidation will almost be unnecessary as the “opponent” will see that your way is probably better.

Return of the superego

The key thing is that arguing because you are the boss is stupid, a waste of time and makes you look bad. No one wants to be seen as a tyrant or dictator. Who cares whether you are the senior or subordinate, you have a viewpoint and you may be right, but you also may be wrong. So get off your high horse.

Discussions should be 50-50; you blaring your points on a loud speaker and putting others on mute will not help anyone.

This is even more important when you are working on business matters. Your preference is not usually what is best for the company. So check your ego at the door and let the best decision rise to the surface.

Boiling point

Way back, I did something not very nice in high school. It was a rare incident, and I sure did learn my lesson, but the next day I was summoned to the principal’s office (again?) with my parents. My folks were sitting there, and I was standing behind them. I thought the principal would be addressing them. He greeted them with a smile, and before I knew it, he unleashed a fury of verbal assaults on me; the mere force of his tone was shaking my foundation.

My father had never yelled at me this way, no girlfriend has ever yelled at me this way (we did say “yell” right?), but here was this man, who knew my grades were topnotch and who was usually cool with students, putting on this show in front of my parents. I was getting “disciplined”, you see. And the good principal, being from the old school, thought this was what my parents wanted.

The yelling session ended and I walked out, somewhat humbled, but not all that impressed. I mean, this principal would never even dare to mention anything, and this one time, to show my folks who was boss, went crazy. So be it. I came out of there realizing that getting yelled at 7am was no fun. Was I intimidated? No.

Why was I not intimidated?

Whenever someone has official power, you expect him or her to have, or at least be in control. Such people may occasionally be weak (in family-run businesses or monarchies) and their times in charge are usually chaotic, unproductive and a mess.

Who gets to the top and stays there for a while? Usually people who show their ability to voice their concern and mind, even with limited power. Essentially, if you work in a large corporation and the senior official knows about you, this is good, but also bad.

Remember that in a small company, the underperformer and overperformers stand out while the average players are nice for chitchat. But in a big company, being average is desired while the rest are seen as troublemakers. As a result, such “outliners” should start to stand their ground and voice their opinion at a very early stage. Trust me, just because someone is your boss today, does not mean that they will be tomorrow. But you should show respect and be courteous nonetheless.

All of this ultimately means that the best at intimidation get away with what they want without even having to intimidate; they simply do not back down, and with the proper mix of rhetoric, reasoning, logic, quick thinking, and fast talking, get what they want, or rather, what they believe is best.

Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at www.CourseToSuccess.com.